GLOBE STAFF AND WIRE REPORTS
Three decades ago, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong spoke to a few dozen people who had gathered at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Milton to study one of the books he had written.
As he often did in public appearances, Bishop Spong spoke out for LGBTQ people at a time when such advocacy was far less prevalent in the Episcopalian and other denominations.
“Every major Christian denomination has seminary professors, priests, and bishops who are gay,” he said in 1990, and added that “the question is whether or not we will honor them as children of God.”
Long one of the most liberal voices among the nation’s Episcopalians, Bishop Spong died Sunday in his Richmond, Va., home. He was 90 and over the years had often taught and lectured at Harvard Divinity School.
In 1989, while he was bishop in Newark, N.J., he ordained the first openly gay male priest in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Robert Williams.
Though the Rev. Ellen Barrett, an openly lesbian priest, had been ordained a decade earlier, Bishop Spong drew national attention by sending letters inviting all the church’s bishops — many of whom opposed his actions — to attend the ordination of Williams that December.
“Christian moral standards have changed quite dramatically,” Bishop Spong told The New York Times before the ordination. “We had slavery in a Christian nation. We had oppressed women. I think that our world is more Christ-like when it’s open to all of God’s children.”
And he added: “We believe that the Church needs to be honest. We have gay priests in every diocese.”
The author of more than two dozen books, Bishop Spong questioned some of Christianity’s fundamental doctrines.
“He was trying to find the kernel and sweep away the husk of what it meant to follow Jesus. He was always seeking after that truth,” the Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas, canon theologian at Washington National Cathedral and dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, told The Washington Post. “What he truly came to understand is doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us Christian. Doctrine, dogma, doesn’t make us church. What makes us church is respecting the sacredness of every single human being and creating a world that does that and making sure the church is leading the world in doing that.”
“In so many ways,” she added, “he was ahead of the church.”
Nine months after Bishop Spong ordained Williams, the Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops voted to pass a resolution affirming that it is “inappropriate” to ordain a practicing homosexual.
“The way the church treats its gay and lesbian members,” Bishop Spong said afterward, “strains the very fabric of my life by tearing it between my loyalty to Jesus Christ, who made a habit of embracing the outcast, and my loyalty to a church that historically has rejected Blacks, women. and gays.”
Born in Charlotte, N.C., on June 16, 1931, John Shelby Spong was raised in fundamentalist churches amid those whose values were racist, sexist, and homophobic.
When he was young, he was taught that gay people were sinful, women were subordinate to men, and whites were superior to people of color.
His father, a salesman who struggled with alcoholism and died when John was 12, told him he should always say “sir” and “ma’am” to his elders, so long as they were not Black.
Bishop Spong later said the greatest influence on his upbringing was his mother, who was part of a strict Presbyterian sect that refused to play hymns because the lyrics were not “God’s words.” He later targeted that kind of biblical literalism in his books and sermons.
In 1998, for example, he criticized LGBTQ opponents as “uninformed religious people who buttress their attitude with appeals to a literal understanding of the Bible. This same mentality has marked every debate about every new insight that has arisen in the Western world over the last 600 years. It is a tired, threadbare argument that has become one of embarrassment to the cause of Christ.”
He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1952 and received a master’s in divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1955. That same year, he was ordained to the priesthood and married Joan Lydia Ketner, who died in 1988.
Two years later, Bishop Spong married Christine Mary Bridger, an administrator in the Newark diocese who went on to edit his work.
Before he became a bishop in New Jersey, he served for 20 years as a priest in North Carolina and Virginia. As rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, known as the Cathedral of the Confederacy because it was where Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis had worshiped, he took down the Confederate flag that flew above the building.
As the civil rights movement progressed, Bishop Spong found himself preaching to Black and white congregations alike, and said he worked to shed what he called the “residual racism” of his upbringing.
“I happen to believe that God’s image is in every human being, and that every human being must [be treated] with ultimate respect. … And the Black people in America were the first people who made this very clear to me,” he said in a 2001 interview with the ABC, Australia’s national broadcaster.
He later expanded his ministry to encompass the fights for gender equality and LGBTQ rights. Soon after he arrived at the Diocese of Newark in the mid-1970s, the diocese became one of the first to ordain women to the priesthood.
The Rev. V. Gene Robinson, who in 2003 was consecrated as the church’s first openly gay bishop, called Bishop Spong “a prophet” in an interview this week with the Post, using the term in the sense of “someone who speaks truth to power, who says those things that people don’t want to hear because it calls their morality and their lives into question.”
“I stand on his shoulders,” Robinson added. “Were it not for the work that he did and the ministry that he did and the advocacy on behalf of LGBTQ people that he did, I wouldn’t be a bishop. He did it long before it was popular or politically correct — he did it because he believed it was the Gospel.”
Bishop Spong’s survivors include his wife, five children, a sister, and six grandchildren. Complete information about survivors and a funeral were not immediately available.
After publishing “Resurrection: Myth or Reality? A Bishop’s Search for the Origins of Christianity,” he spoke with the Globe in 1994 about parts of Christianity he was challenging.
Neither Judas Iscariot nor a betrayal by one of the 12 apostles was mentioned in early parts of the New Testament, he said.
“Judas was a creation of the Christian Church, which sought to shift blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews,” he said.
In his 2005 book “The Sins of Scripture: Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love,” Bishop Spong wrote:
“I am now convinced that institutional Christianity has become so consumed by its quest for power and authority, most of which is rooted in the excessive claims for the Bible, that the authentic voice of God can no longer be heard within it.”
Material from The Washington Post was used in this obituary. Bryan Marquard of the Globe staff contributed to this report.